Elite Capture and Corporate Antiracism




(Inspired by “Elite Capture in the Real World of Class Struggle” by Kip H, TCDSA Blog 10/20/23)

Kip’s well-written blog post answered a question I’ve had for four years: What is wrong with corporate antiracism? As often happens with someone who has ADHD, the answer was in plain sight. Cooptation (now called elite capture.) And that raises another question. Why would a Marxist (for 50 years now) not know the class struggle when they see it? Context is always key.

I worked in one of the most liberal of neoliberal corporations and was well-paid and respected for my intellectual labor. (Material conditions do impact consciousness!) Coworkers and I repeatedly witnessed “Minnesota Nice” misogyny and racism. Then corporate leadership invested in a Black-led Diversity & Inclusion department for self-proclaimed capitalist reasons: 1) My company sells directly to the public; the United States is becoming racially and ethnically diverse, and people like to buy from people who look like them. 2) The tight job market, especially in high-tech fields such as AI, advanced software development, and cyber-security. To broaden both the customer base and the pool of potential skilled employees, executives decided to get real on white supremacy, sexual harassment, and exclusion. Practices that have plagued US American culture since the beginning. I was a total skeptic and had worked in the corporate world for 40 years as a closet socialist, so I had seen all flavors of Kool-Aid including toothless mutterings about diversity, as part of corporate ethics training. 

But this time it was different. Getting real meant organizing difficult conversations. Actual conversations led by skilled facilitators about whiteness, LGBTQ+ oppression, and male privilege. Attendance was voluntary but encouraged. We watched movies about real struggles. One was about men overcoming childhood abuse and young adulthood as abusers. Another was on American Muslim women who preferred the hijab because it enabled them to lead with their heart and head rather than their physical appearance. We discussed hard questions in small, safe groups where people were continually encouraged to be open to themselves and accept each other. We studied the history of whiteness, and people were asked to identify when their ancestors, Irish, Jews, Italians, and Poles, first became white. In Minnesota, Jews and Catholics weren’t really white until the 70s. As a radical, living in multi-racial communities and family, I thought I understood racism. But I had a lot to learn. About microaggressions, unconscious bias, and one-upMANship. How deeply ingrained we are with multiple layers of inferiority and small privileges that we fight for. I finally surrendered my skepticism and became a D&I leader in my division.

These methods of antiracist anti-sexist education were and are real. They are the product of centuries of struggle, research, and debate over human rights. And they were limited by the larger context of corporate capitalism. The D&I trainers pointed out that fighting oppression meant standing up when you were put down. You could push back professionally but firmly. They started a series of difficult conversations about work-life balance and talking with your boss about too much overtime. That series was quickly dropped. We were liberal, but still a capitalist corporation. 

After the fire and fury of the George Floyd uprising, corporate leadership saw the backlash coming. They switched D&I to “Inclusion and Diversity.” The focus was on building harmonious teams and making sure everyone’s voice was heard. Managers went through Inclusion training and were still managers with company objectives to meet. My company is the most liberal of neoliberal corporations. They are anti-union but have never faced a strike. Our company formed Employee Resource groups for Blacks, Latinos, veterans, differently-abled people, etc. as Stellantis did. But we have yet to face a union organizing campaign so the ERGs were never overtly used as union-busters.

However, this doesn’t mean that the antiracism and anti-patriarchy education methods are all BS. They aren’t. They had a positive effect on many people and have helped weaken those systems of oppression. But education alone can’t bring lasting change unless combined with campaigns to change power relationships. And as long as capital holds the power, the people don’t. Patti Smith’s song is inspiring but only aspirational until we work to make it a reality. 

By Robbie O